Having a Ball at the Inauguration
by Eric Felten  /  January 16, 2009

‘Inaugurations are jolly events,” Judith Martin wrote in “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.” But they are not without their hassles, inconveniences that may well be encountered Tuesday when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th American president. Traditionally the most chaotic challenge at inaugural festivities is not “messy weather” or “spectator events you can’t see” but the quest to get a cocktail. Drinks are “acquired after massive physical exertion only to be spilled on one’s best clothes.” Which is why Miss Manners suggests that inaugurations have less in common with coronations than with football weekends. Will the day be, as Mr. Obama and his team have repeatedly promised, “the most open and accessible inauguration in our nation’s history”? Unlikely — and not just because of the security imperatives of the modern presidency. The bar for inaugural openness was set so high by Andrew Jackson (and the parched mob that followed him into the White House) that no modern president could hope, or would want, to best it. “A monstrous crowd of people is in the city,” Daniel Webster wrote on Inauguration Day, 1829. “I never saw any thing like it before. Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson; and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”

After the oath and his address, the old general climbed on his horse and headed for the White House. As one witness told it: “The President was literally pursued by a motley concourse of people, riding, running helter-skelter, striving who should first gain admittance into the executive mansion, where it was understood that refreshments were to be distributed.” The unruly bunch pushed into the White House, clods standing on the silk-upholstered furniture in muddy boots to get a glimpse of the new president (who was trying not to be crushed by his well-wishers). “The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, appalled. When the stewards finally delivered buckets full of Orange Punch, the crowd lunged for the pails, overturning furniture, smashing the glassware, and — perhaps worst of all — spilling the punch itself. Quick-thinking waiters lugged the remaining barrels of punch out onto the White House lawn, enticing Jackson’s admirers to take the party outside.

I scoured 19th-century cookbooks for Orange Punch recipes and found them to be fairly consistent: Make a sugar syrup and infuse it with orange peel; use it to sweeten a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, rum and brandy. Some also added a taste of orange curaçao (orangey overkill) or maraschino liqueur. As specified, the drink isn’t bad, but it isn’t anything I’d trample White House furniture to get at. So I tweaked it a bit. I flavored the sugar syrup not only with orange peel but also with mulling spices and brightened the punch with the judicious addition of soda water. And to counteract the drink’s tendency toward over-sweetness, I added a dash of Angostura bitters to each glass. I’ve given the recipe in proportions, easy to make by the bucketful if you’ve got a mob of your own to serve on Inauguration Day.

Inaugural Orange Punch
3 parts fresh orange juice
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part mulled orange syrup
1 part dark rum
1 part cognac
2 parts soda water

Combine in a punch bowl with a large block of ice. Serve in punch cups with a little crushed ice, and give each glass a dash of Angostura bitters.

Mulled Orange Syrup
Combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water and heat to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat to a low simmer. Add the peel from an orange and mulling spices (a couple of cinnamon sticks, some whole cloves and allspice berries). After 15 minutes, remove from heat and let it sit for several hours. Strain.

The trashing of the White House that was Andrew Jackson’s inauguration
by Tony Perrottet   /  30 September 2008

The most riotous party scene in the U.S. political arena occurred when the war hero Andrew Jackson, considered a country bumpkin by many a patrician Easterner, arrived in Washington, D.C. An estimated 30,000 of his supporters converged on the young capital city, mostly from the South and West, to whoop it up for the March 4 swearing-in. These frontier crowds didn’t just want to fill the saloons of the capital — they wanted to shake Jackson’s hand and pay a visit to his swank new home, the President’s House, which had recently been painted a glossy white. The scenes of debauchery that ensued would make the city’s genteel, fashion-obsessed locals blanch.

Scoring an Invitation
Until this time, inauguration receptions had been discreet and civilized affairs. Straight-laced members of the American aristocracy would gather at the President’s House and offer their formal congratulations over coffee and biscuits, while quietly rejoicing that power was remaining in the hands of the land-owning elite. 1828 would change all that. Jackson was the first truly popular president: Leading a faction that would later become the Democratic Party, he swept into power by taking advantage of new laws that almost tripled the numbers of registered American voters from 365,000 to a million, and. He himself was one of the country’s fabled self-made men, a poor autodidact from the Tennessee frontier who served in the Revolutionary War as a teenage foot soldier and rose in the ranks to become a successful general in the War of 1812 (he had a dent in his skull from a British sword). He was so popular that any man who had cast a ballot for Jackson in the 1828 election felt that he had been extended a personal invitation to attend the inauguration. What’s more, the election of 1824 had been “stolen” — Jackson had swept the popular vote but had not gained a majority in the Electoral College — and his supporters wanted to make sure they finished the job.

Pre-party Planning
Ever since the British burned Washington to the ground 16 years earlier, successive mayors had been trying to make the capital presentable. It was an uphill job. The artificial city was still a ramshackle and provincial affair, far from the fine metropolis envisioned by designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant — “a parody upon all the other capitals that were ever actually built up and inhabited since the beginning of the world,” scoffed the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Monthly. The city had only one decent thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue, which ran between Congress and the Presidential House, while the rest was bleak swamp and sand. In fact, Washington was completely unprepared for the hordes, wild-haired or otherwise, that arrived upon it. The hotels filled up days beforehand, as did those in nearby Georgetown and Alexandria, so innkeepers happily tripled their room rates and rented space on their kitchen floors. Thousands simply camped out under the open sky. For the coarse Jackson supporters, mostly outdoorsmen of sorts, this was no hardship: They were simply bivouacking as if they were on a hunting trip in the Adirondacks. Many of them had never seen a real city before, so even Washington was an awe-inspiring site.

What to Wear
Unwashed hayseeds they may have been, but on the big day it would be Sunday best — every man with his beaver-skin hat, every woman with a bonnet.

Party Progress
At dawn, a 13-cannon salute woke the city, and crowds began to gather outside the modest hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue where Jackson himself had taken a suite. At 11 a.m., the gaunt, white-haired object of the peoples’ affections emerged dressed in funereal black (he was mourning his beloved wife, who had died after his election), to ear-splitting huzzas. In this era before Presidential assassinations, Jackson walked to the Capitol on foot with fans surging all around him, some on horseback, some in carriages, a bevy of pretty girls in a wagon alongside. At the Capitol, he took his oath of office and gave an inaudible speech. No sooner had he finished than things began to get out of hand. The crowd had become a sea covering every available space, and it now surged through the barriers and mobbed the new President. Jackson’s friends had to force a way for him back along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where he and his men had prepared some modest refreshments for his supporters.

This “reception” went awry from the start. When the staff opened the doors to bring out the first barrels of orange and rum punch, the exultant crowd burst in and knocked several over, soaking the floor in sticky booze and smashed glasses. The guests were, said eyewitness Margaret Bayard Smith, “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping… Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion as is impossible to describe.” The crowd quickly took possession of the White House: So many people were squeezed inside that the building itself creaked and shuddered dangerously. A bodyguard of loyal friends had to form a ring around the scarecrow figure of Jackson so he wouldn’t be crushed to death or asphyxiated by well-wishers. The strangers behaved if they were in a Mississippi saloon, standing in mud-caked boots on the damask chairs for a better view. But it wasn’t all riff-raff. Even some of the stuffy D.C. toffs got into the anarchic spirit. “Everyone from the highest and most polished,” marveled one attendee, Joseph Story, an associate judge of the Supreme Court, “down to the most vulgar and gross of the nation,” wanted their slice of the action. There are numerous accounts from well-to-do white observers who were shocked to see free African-Americans in the throng, including bevies of children and one “stout black wench” (noted Senator James Hamilton Jr. with disdain) who sat by herself in a back room, “eating in this free country a jelley with a gold spoon in the President’s House.” Some compared the crowd to the barbarians in Rome. It was too crowded to get through the front door, so anyone who wanted to leave had to crawl out a first floor window. At 4 p.m., friends managed to spirit Jackson back to his hotel, but the party continued at the White House for hours. At around dusk, servants struck upon the idea of passing barrels of liquor and ice cream out the window in order to get the revelers out onto the lawn, where they could do less damage. It worked.

High Points
Despite the chaos, even the most dubious observers admitted that something “sublime” had occurred at Jackson’s party. There was no doubt that a new era of American democracy had begun. “It was the People’s day, and the People’s President, and the People would rule,” wrote Margaret Smith.

The After-Party
When the dust settled on the evening, the White House looked like a war zone. Thousands of dollars worth of china and glassware had been smashed or taken as souvenirs, the carpets were shredded, the upholstery ruined. Jackson was not abashed. He took the near-riot as an opportunity to have Congress allocate enough money to actually finish the President’s abode to the original design of Benjamin Latrobe. He got $50,000 to refurbish it, acquiring sumptuous new furniture, elegant dining ware, and no less than 20 spittoons for the East Room.

{Source: Brands, H.W., Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, (New York, 2005); Remini, Robert, Andrew Jackson, vol. 2: The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832, (Baltimore, 1999).}

“Popular legend has it that the lack of content on three pages of George Washington’s diary can be traced directly to a bowl of punch. But it wasn’t just any old punch–it was Fish House Punch, a concoction that packs… well, you can probably fill in the blank. Therecipe for true Fish House Punch was kept secret for almost 200 years. The formula was first developed at the Fish House Club, a.k.a. the State in Schuylkill, or simply the Schuylkill Fishing Company in Philadelphia, an organization formed in 1732 by a group of anglers who liked to cook. They spent their days fishing for perch in the Schuylkill River, and as the sun went down, they headed to the clubhouse to make dinner with their catch.

These days, if you want to join the Fish House Club, you’d better be prepared to learn their culinary methods the hard way–you must perform “menial tasks” in their kitchen until a spot opens up, and it’s mandatory that you’re cheerful about it. But you’ll be in good company–they say that Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette donned a white apron and helped prepare dinner when he visited the club a few years after Washington’s 1787 visit. The club seems to attract the right sort of people.”

“I recently received mail from a descendant of the creator of Fish House Punch, informing me that the recipe on site “bears not the least resemblance to the recipe in my care…”

Original Fish House Punch Recipe
A decent batch consists of:
30 limes, cut in half and squeezed, such pulp as gets through is fine
15 lemons, treat as above
This constitutes a “part” for measuring the rest of the ingredients:
1 part dark rum
2 parts light rum… Use a reasonable quality, these are friends you will be poisoning so treat them well
1 part brandy
1 part brown sugar
1 part water, in the form of a block of ice




Kenyans toast Obama presidency with beer, parties
by Elizabeth A. Kennedy

Nairobi, Kenya (AP) — From the shantytowns of Kenya’s capital to the rural homestead of Barack Obama’s relatives, thousands of Kenyans slaughtered goats, hoisted American flags and partied into the night Tuesday as a man they see as one of their own ascended to the world’s most powerful office. In Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum, residents raised a U.S. flag and declared Kenya to be America’s 51st state. In the village of Kogelo, where Obama’s father was born and some family members still live, 5,000 people gathered as 10 bulls and six goats were slaughtered for a luxurious feast at a time when the country is enduring a crippling food crisis. Women dressed in colorful print cloths performed traditional dances to the rhythms of cowhide drums. “Yes, yes, yes!” shouted Maurice Odoyo, 34, joining hundreds of people trying to catch a glimpse of Obama’s speech on a 12-inch television set up in a clearing in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums. “His father comes from this country. Obama will remember us, how we are suffering.” The election of a black American president with African roots stands as a powerful symbol on a continent where so many people’s hopes are hobbled by crushing poverty and corruption. And in Kenya, a struggling country of 38 million riven a year ago by a deadly post-election crisis, Obama’s presidency was a source of pride and inspiration.

Kibera is a stark reminder of the poverty in a country where one in five people get by on less than a dollar a day. The slum is a maze of tin-roofed shacks where raw sewage flows through dirt tracks. On Tuesday, children wearing Obama T-shirts huddled by a bonfire to keep warm. Despite Kenya’s problems, Obama’s victory has enthralled the nation. “We missed the Kenyan presidency but we got a bigger one, the American throne,” Seth Oloo, a physician in the western town of Kisumu, told The Associated Press.

Obama was born in Hawaii, where he spent most of his childhood raised by his mother, a white American from Kansas. He barely knew his late father, an economist from Kogelo. Obama has visited his Kenyan relatives three times there, and his step-grandmother, Sarah, and other relatives traveled to Washington for the inauguration. She says they are close, although they have to speak through an interpreter. Since Obama was elected, the road to Kogelo has been tarred and the government has brought in electricity and water. Local youths hope Obama will bring factories for them to work in. Samuel Omondi said if Obama could bring such changes, he was welcome to take over from his own country’s scandal-wracked government. “I hope Kenya to be one of the American states,” the 33-year-old Kogelo resident said. At the biggest hospital in nearby Kisumu, Christine Aoko named her newborn daughter Michelle, after Obama’s wife. “I hope my girl will grow as tough as Michelle,” Aoko said. Nairobi’s popular Carnivore restaurant, where tourists dine on alligator and giraffe, ordered an extra 240 crates of beer for partygoers watching the inauguration. But many caution against placing too much hope in the idea that Obama will make Africa a top priority. “It is lost on many of us that despite his Kenyan roots, Barack Obama is as American as apple pie, and will never be president of Kenya,” said a column in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. “True, he does have an attachment to this country, but it would be foolish of us to wait for him to direct Air Force One and the entire American fleet to bring goodies to our starving shores.”


Party Time : Inauguration Night in Nairobi
by Alex Robinson  /  January 21st, 2009

Obama was everywhere from the moment I stepped off the plane in Nairobi, Kenya — on T-shirts, on the front page of all the papers, printed on the backs of buses and trucks on the traffic-choked highway into town. “This is a new era,” said my taxi driver, “a happy day for Kenyans, for Africans, a day to celebrate.” “So how will you be celebrating?” I asked. “There are parties all over the city. The clubs will be alive.” And yes they were. At the international conference center downtown, where thousands of Kenyans sat watching CNN, I met a couple of young Nairobians who invited me to what they called “the coolest bar in the city,” Casablaca. One of them was Ella Ciiru, who would be singing there later. As we headed out of town in a convoy of trucks, rickshaws, limousines and bicycles, Ciiru spoke to me about her Obama-era hopes. “I think people will manage to see another side of Kenya through this. Beyond the safaris and pith helmets, the political violence and prejudice. They will see that we are modern people. I hope it will encourage people to come and know the real Kenya.”

That Kenya was out in force at Casablanca. Packed with Nairobi’s beautiful movers and shakers, this was cool, contemporary East Africa. Models with tiny waists in Imani gowns wafted through the Morroccan-themed bar. Musicians and media types sucked on hookahs and sipped mojitos. People danced to D.J. Dudu Sarr’s fashionable African mix: Senegalese hip-hop, Suzanna Owiyo, Kenyan Genge music. By the time the vice-presidential inauguration had come and gone, the club was beginning to hush. Soon everyone was sitting at red-white-and-blue-draped tables in the garden in front of huge flat-screen TV’s.  Obama stepped forward, and Casablanca was so quiet I could hear the singing of the cicadas and tree frogs. The moment hung in the thick night air, and when the new president gave a shout out to Kogelo, the village where he traces his roots, the crowd burst into a cheer. Then Nairobi began to party in earnest. The garden started thumping to the dance music of Afro-Project, Nairobi’s hottest new act. And Ciiru finally took to the stage for her Beyoncé moment, singing rich, resonant African soul. Soon I was dragged away again, this time by my two new friends Sidney and Arthur, who were bored of the fashionable crowd. They were after beer, not cocktails. So we ended up downing bottles of Tusker in the rustic-chic K1 Klubhouse, a kind of mock jungle bar where everyone wore Diesel jeans and danced to high-energy Kenyan Kapuka music.

From there it was on to Gallileo, which was full of locals waving Kenyan flags inscribed with “Obama.” D.J. Riggs played L.A. hip-hop, and young couples grooved to the image of the president and first lady dancing together at the Neighborhood Ball. As the night stretched into the morning, we all ended up in a field full of students smiling and shouting. One group was brandishing an American flag and cheering, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” Two girls rushed up to me, the only white face in the crowd. “Where you from?” they asked. “America? Welcome to Kenya!” They laughed and kissed me on the cheek. “Tell your friends to come and see our country!”

“Chinese volunteers have donated over 100 tonnes of rice to Sarah Obama, U.S. President Barack Obama’s step-grandmother, to help her AIDS orphans in western Kenya. Sarah Obama, 87, has adopted 82 orphans, aged four to 18, most of whose parents died from AIDS, the China Daily and Beijing Youth Daily said. “She will be very happy to see the support from China after she returns from Obama’s inauguration,” Kenyan Ambassador Julius Ole Sunkuli, who attended a donation ceremony on Tuesday, was quoted as saying. Kenya launched a $470 million aid appeal on Friday to help millions suffering from drought and lack of food at a time when the government is mired in corruption scandals.”

Family Affair Stretches Across the Ocean
by Brigid Schulte  /  January 21, 2009

In the hours before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, as celebrities flitted through town and the beautiful and the powerful began to party, the African cousins of the soon-to-be leader of the free world clambered into the back of a van for the long ride from their National Harbor hotel to a house in Silver Spring. There would be no balls or fancy suits for this trio, a shopkeeper, biology teacher and banking professor on their first visit to America. Dressed in casual slacks and bundled against an unfamiliar cold, they were headed to an impromptu gathering of Kenyans at a local businessman’s home. “We have come to welcome our son!” one of their countrymen exclaimed in Swahili as life-size images of President Obama filled the big-screen TV in the basement party room. During a day of historic and unusual firsts, the mere presence in Washington yesterday of more than 30 Obama relatives from Kenya was living testimony to the theme of the day: transformation. Obama has often told the story that “only in America” could the son of a man who grew up herding goats in a dusty African village become president of the United States. In his inaugural speech, he made note of that extraordinary journey, referring to “the small village where my father was born.”

As the new president spoke, not far behind him sat a wrinkled woman in a white headdress, beaming. Sarah Onyango — Obama calls her “Granny” or “Mama Sarah” — raised Obama’s father during his boyhood in the Kenyan village of Kisumu. Until recently, she lived in a hut with no running water or electricity, and chickens darted in and out. Now, along with Obama’s Kenyan half-sister, four of his five living half-brothers and other family members — including his father’s first wife — she was a witness to history. Obama’s family narrative is something entirely new in U.S. history. No son of an immigrant has risen to be president since James Buchanan, whose father was born in Ireland in 1761. “This is a completely new phenomenon,” said Gary Boyd Roberts, who has spent a lifetime studying the lineage of U.S. presidents and is senior research scholar emeritus with the New England Historic Genealogical Society. “We haven’t ever had a president who was this connected to family overseas or to a culture that is this distant.” And no one has ever had overseas relatives attend his inauguration, according to Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President.”(Stanislaw Albert Raziwell, a Polish prince, did attend John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, Roberts added, “but he was an in-law.”)

The three Obama cousins at the celebration in Silver Spring came as part of a 20-member delegation from Kogelo, the Obama homeland. They were among the quietest in the boisterous, good-humored crowd. With few words, each tucked into heaping plates of ugali (a semihard cake of maize), mandazi sweet buns, roast potatoes, a whole fish, turkey, fried chicken, creamed spinach and grapes. Wilson Obama ate the traditional way: with his hands. Although he wore a blue baseball cap pulled low on his brow, the others soon teased that they could tell right away that he was an Obama. “It’s the ears!” they shouted. Wilson Obama’s ears, like his famous cousin’s, stick out famously.

In Kisumu, Wilson Obama, 59, runs a small store of “consumables,” selling wheat, flour, sugar, detergent and cooking oil. John Ogembu, 43, teaches biology and chemistry at a secondary school. They are both the president’s second cousins. Moses Obama, 35, is a lecturer on banking and finance at a local university. His mother was Barack Obama Sr.’s older sister, making him the president’s first cousin. They have met the president and eaten meals with him when he has visited Kenya. They’ve followed every twist of the campaign. Why they decided to come is simple: They could not let history as strange and wonderful as this pass them by. “What has happened is not just for America,” Ogembu said. “It is for the whole world.” Ogembu and his cousins didn’t make it to the swearing-in in time. They desperately showed their passports with the Obama name, but Secret Service agents would not let them in the secure area near the president, said Grace Owuor, who was organizing the family’s travel. They returned to their hotel and watched the event on television.

Nicholas Rajula, the spokesman for the 20-member delegation from Kogelo, said that village tradition required that they come and stand as “witnesses” and to “wish our son well.” (Some watched on TV as well.) They claim him, Rajula laughed, even though villagers called him “mzungu,” Swahili for white, when they first saw him. Just after Obama was sworn in as a U.S. senator, Rajula, 49, journeyed to Washington on behalf of the ancestral homeland to bring him the traditional Luo symbols of leadership: a fly whisk, a three-legged stool and a shield. “We wanted to bring him a spear, too,” Rajula said. “But we couldn’t get it through security at the airport.” This time, they did not bring gifts. They can be given only once, Rajula explained. And, he said, Obama has already used their powers well.


“The Kogelo, Kenya, primary school served as the “Official Obama Office” during inauguration festivities in the new President’s ancestral village. The school was the main inauguration gathering spot in Kogelo, but the institution may face stiff competition during future festivals. Kenya has allocated the equivalent of about a million U.S. dollars for an Obama cultural center in the village, according to Kenya’s Daily Nation. Meanwhile, Obama: The Musical was enjoyed an inauguration-inspired revival at Nairobi’s Kenya National Theatre this week.”

Obama fever calms Niger Delta youths
by Victor Emeruwa  /  20 January 2009

“There will be no reckless kidnapping and pipeline vandalism at least Tuesday at the prominently restive oil rich community in Nigeria. The youths of Niger Delta are ecstatic today with a plan to raise the flags of America and dance round the about 200 miles fishing community. Obuama indigenes in Niger delta are rolling out the drums in thick celebration of the Barack Obama’s Presidential inauguration taking place in Washington DC. The predominantly fishing community is filled with enthusiasm as they have mapped out plans to roll out programs to mark Obama’s inauguration. Obuoma, a small community in the delta was discovered about 127 years ago, the community remained primitive until 1999 when it embraced Christianity. The indigenes are excited because they share a name that sounds similar to the name of the President-elect of America. “The indigenes do not claim that the American President is a descent of the village but are inspired by the guts and philosophy of Obama” said the clan traditional ruler. It also seems that the village is getting inspired by the courage and guts of the first black President of the United States of America. “I am training my three children and grooming them well with hopes that one day they could grow to become presidents of Nigeria or even the world like Barack Obama” Duru Okpoka, an enthusiastic peasant farmer said.”





Many new faces in America’s extended first family
New York Times News Service  /  January 21, 2009

The president’s elderly Kenyan stepgrandmother came, bearing a gift of an oxtail fly whisk. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife. When President Barack Obama was sworn in on Tuesday, he was surrounded by an extended clan that would have shocked past generations of Americans and instantly redrew the image of a first family for future ones. As they convened to take their family’s final step in its journey from Africa and slavery to a White House built partly by slaves, the group seemed as if it had stepped out of the pages of Obama’s memoir — no longer the disparate kin of a young man wondering how he fit in, but the embodiment of a new president’s promise of change.

For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Obama and his wife, Michelle is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages, including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor. “Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don’t think it’s new in terms of the country,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s younger half-sister, said in an interview last week. “I don’t think the White House has always reflected the textures and flavors of this country.”

Though the world is recognizing the inauguration of the first African-American president, the story is a more complex narrative, about immigration, social mobility and the desegregation of one of the last divided institutions in American life: the family. It is a tale of self-determination, full of refusals to follow the tracks laid by history or religion or parentage. Obama follows the second President Bush, who had a presidential son’s self-assured grip on power. Aside from a top-quality education, the new president came to politics with none of his predecessor’s advantages: no famous last name, no deep-pocketed parents to finance early forays into politics and, in fact, not much of a father at all. So Obama built his political career from scratch, with best-selling books and long-shot runs for office, leaving his relatives astonished at where he has brought them. “It is so mind-boggling that there is a black president,” Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother, said in an interview. “Then you layer on top of it that I am related to him? And then you layer on top of that that it’s my brother-in-law? That is so overwhelming, I can’t hardly think about it.”

Though Barack Obama is the son of a black Kenyan, he has some conventionally presidential roots on his white mother’s side: abolitionists who, according to family legend, were chased out of Missouri, a slave state; Midwesterners who weathered the Depression; even a handful of distant ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. (Ever since he became a U.S. senator, the Sons of the American Revolution has tried to recruit him.) But far less is known about Michelle Obama’s roots — even by the first lady herself. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, “it was sort of passed-down folklore that so-and-so was related to so-and-so and their mother and father was a slave,” Robinson said.  Drawing on old census data, family records and interviews, it is clear that Michelle Obama is indeed the descendant of slaves and a daughter of the Great Migration, the mass movement of African-Americans northward in the first half of the 20th century in search of opportunity. Michelle Obama’s family found it, but not without outsize measures of adversity and disappointment along the way.

Only five generations ago, the first lady’s great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was born a slave on Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., where he almost certainly drained swamps, harvested rice and was buried in an unmarked grave. As a child, Michelle Obama used to visit her Georgetown relatives, but she only learned during the campaign that her forebears had been enslaved in the same town where she and her cousins had played.According to Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist who has uncovered the roots of many political figures, Michelle Obama has ancestors with similar backgrounds across the South. The public records they left behind give only the briefest glimpses of their lives: Fanny Laws Humphrey, one of Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandmothers, was a cook in Birmingham, Ala., born before the end of the Civil War. Another set of great-great-grandparents, Mary and Nelson Moten, seem to have left Kentucky for Chicago in the early 1860s, a hint they might have been free before official emancipation. And in 1910, some of Michelle Obama’s ancestors are listed in a census as mulatto, adding some support to family whispers of a white ancestor.

The jobs that her relatives held in the early 20th century — domestic servant, coal sorter, dressmaker — suggest an escape from sharecropping, the system that trapped many former slaves and their children in penury for generations. Still, the family’s progress was uneven. Jim Robinson was born into slavery, but his son, Fraser, ran a lunch truck in Georgetown. In turn, his son, also named Fraser, struck out for Chicago in search of something better. But he was unable to find work, and left his wife and children for 14 years, according to his son, Nomenee Robinson. As a result, Michelle Obama’s father was on welfare as a boy and started working on a milk truck at 11. After serving in the Army in World War II and finally securing a job as a postal clerk, Fraser Robinson Jr. rejoined his family. He was so thrifty that he would bring home chemicals to do the family dry cleaning in the bathtub. But his son — Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser Robinson III — became overwhelmed with debt and dropped out of college after a year. He worked in a city boiler room for the rest of his life, helping to send his four younger siblings to college, then his two children, Michelle Obama and her brother, to Princeton.

For all of the vast differences in the Obama and Robinson histories, a few common threads run through. Education is one of them. As a young man, Barack Obama’s father herded goats, then won a scholarship to study in the Kenyan capital. When Barack Obama lived in Indonesia as a child, his mother woke him up for at 4 a.m. for English lessons; meanwhile, in Chicago, Michelle Obama’s mother was bringing home math and reading workbooks so her children would always be a few lessons ahead in school. Only through education, generations of Robinsons taught their children, would they ever succeed in a racist society, relatives said. “My mother would say, ‘When you acquire knowledge, you acquire something no one could take away from you,’ ” Craig Robinson said.

The families also share a kind of adventurous self-determination. In the standard telling, the Obama side is the one that bent the rules of geography and ethnicity. Yet the first lady’s family, the supposed South Side traditionalists, includes several members who literally or figuratively ventured far from home. Nomenee Robinson was an early participant in the Peace Corps, serving in India for two years; later, he moved to Nigeria, where he met his wife; the couple now live in Chicago. Capers Funnye Jr., a cousin of Michelle Obama’s and a rabbi, was brought up in the black church, he said, but as a young man, he felt a calling to Judaism he could not ignore. In daring cross-cultural leaps, no figure quite matches Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, Barack Obama’s mother. As a university student in Honolulu, she hung out at the East-West Center, a cultural exchange organization, meeting two successive husbands there: Barack Obama Sr., an economics student from Kenya, and later, Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian. Decades later, her daughter, Maya Soetoro was picking up fliers at the same East-West Center when she noticed Konrad Ng, a Chinese-Canadian student, now her husband.

Now the Obama-Robinson family’s move to the White House seems like a symbolic end point for the once-unquestioned idea that people of different backgrounds should not date, marry or bear children. In Barack Obama’s lifetime, racial intermarriage not only became legal everywhere in the United States, but has started to flourish. As many as a third of white Americans and over half of black Americans count someone of a different race among their close relatives, estimates Joshua R. Goldstein of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Diversity inside families, said Michael J. Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford University, is “the most interesting kind of diversity there is, because it brings people together cheek by jowl in a way that they never were before.” “There’s nothing as powerful as family relationships,” Rosenfeld said, “and that’s why interracial marriage was illegal for so long in the U.S.” Initially, some of the unions in the Obama family caused consternation. “What can you say when your son announces he’s going to marry a Mzungu?” said Sarah Obama in an interview, using the Swahili term for “white person.” But it was too late, she said, because the couple was deeply in love.

If the Obama-Robinson family faced other suspicions, misunderstandings or double-takes in knitting the clan together, they are barely acknowledged. In interviews, the relatives say their family feels natural and right to them, that they think of each other as individuals, not as members of groups. Maya Soetoro-Ng said that she was not “the Indonesian sister,” but just Maya. On Monday, some of Barack Obama’s Kenyan relatives milled around the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel here, their colorful headscarves earning them more curious glances than even the sports and pop music stars in the room. Zeituni Onyango, the president’s aunt, explained that their family had always been able to absorb newcomers. Pointing out that her male relatives used to take on multiple wives, she said, “My daddy said anyone coming into my family is my family.” (Onyango, who lives in Boston, recently faced deportation charges, but those orders have been stayed and she is pursuing a green card.) At holidays and celebrations, “you get a whole lot of people who are happy to be around family,” Craig Robinson said. “They happen to be from different cultures, but the common thing is that they are all family.”

Like the inauguration, those celebrations draw on a happy mishmash of traditions and histories. Take the Obamas’ 1992 wedding, which included Kenyan family in traditional dress, an African-American cloth-binding ceremony in which the bride and groom’s hands were symbolically tied, and blues, jazz and classical music at the reception (held at a cultural center that was once a country club where black and Jewish Chicagoans were denied admission). White House events may now take on some of the same feel. Four years ago, when the family descended on Washington for Barack Obama’s Senate swearing-in, Ng strolled over to the White House gates and took a picture of his then-infant daughter, Suhaila — “gentle” in Swahili — sleeping in her stroller. Days before leaving Hawaii for the inauguration, Ng stared at the picture and wondered how much had changed since it was taken. After Tuesday’s ceremony, he said, “folks like me will have a chance to be on the other side.”


“Dear Mister President:
We are greatly honored to join the millions around the globe congratulating you on taking office as the president of the United States of America. We believe that we are witnessing something truly historic not only in the political annals of your great nation, the United States of America, but of the world. Your election to this high office has inspired people as few other events in recent times have done. Amidst all of the human progress made over the last century the world in which we live remains one of great divisions, conflict, inequality, poverty and injustice. Amongst many around the world a sense of hopelessness had set in as so many problems remain unresolved and seemingly incapable of being resolved. You, Mister President, have brought a new voice of hope that these problems can be addressed and that we can in fact change the world and make of it a better place.

We are in some ways reminded today of the excitement and enthusiasm in our own country at the time of our transition to democracy. People, not only in our country but around the world, were inspired to believe that through common human effort injustice can be overcome and that together a better life for all can be achieved. Your presidency brings hope of new beginnings in the relations between nations, that the challenges we all face, be they economic, the environment, or in combating poverty or the search for peace, will be addressed with a new spirit of openness and accommodation. There is a special excitement on our continent today, Mister President, in the knowledge that you have such strong personal ties with Africa. We share in that excitement and pride.

We are aware that the expectations of what your Presidency will achieve are high and that the demands on you will be great. We therefore once more wish you and your family strength and fortitude in the challenging days and years that lie ahead. You will always be in our affection as a young man who dared to dream and to pursue that dream. We wish you well.”

N R Mandela

Leave a Reply